Pipeline fuel thieves employ profitable, efficient strategy

Gangs of thieves who steal fuel from Mexico’s state-owned pipelines work with such expertise and efficiency that they can make profits of up to 250,000 pesos (US $13,400) a week, according to a public security consultant.

At a workshop designed to educate people about the strategies criminals use to commit the crime, Francisco Granados told police officers, lawyers and military personnel that each member of a gang of huachicoleros, as the thieves are colloquially known, has a specific role.

There is always a technician with expertise in pipeline management, a group that forms a protective barrier around the crime scene, lookouts with radios, at least one driver and a commander who usually controls the operation from afar, Granados said.

After a section of pipeline from which to extract fuel has been identified, thieves use a tapping machine to perforate it and attach a ball valve to the duct before connecting a one or two-inch hose, the consultant explained.

“Once the valve is installed, it is estimated that up to 1,000 liters of fuel can be extracted in minutes,” Granados told the workshop.

The equipment used by the thieves to extract the fuel doesn’t cost more than 18,000 pesos (US $980), he said.

Granados explained that the stolen fuel is placed into drums or even directly into tankers and then transported to nearby safe houses or warehouses.

Many gangs of huachicoleros now have a tried-and-tested strategy that has allowed them to operate lucrative and illegal fuel rackets but, according to Granados, they cannot take all the credit.

“Without a doubt, former employees of [state oil company] Pemex were the ones that taught criminals the processes to extract fuel, since they know the exact location of the national pipeline network, the hours of use [and] the transportation periods of each product very well,” he said.

The number of illegal taps detected last year increased by 51% to a record 10,363 despite increased vigilance and efforts by federal authorities to combat the crime.

In response to the latest figures, Pemex said that it had beefed up security even further and is collaborating with the federal Attorney General’s office, the Federal Police and the Interior Secretariat among other agencies to share information and support investigations aimed at fighting the illegal theft and trade of fuel.

But arresting those responsible and retaking control of one of the country’s most profitable industries won’t be easy.

A report last month indicated that many of Mexico’s notorious drug cartels now play an increasingly dominant role as fuel thieves and with fuel theft costing the federal government more than US $1 billion annually, it is a revenue source that they will no doubt be prepared to fiercely defend.

Source: Reforma (sp)